Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Law and Order: London Style

September 1st, 2009 · No Comments

I am a law-abiding citizen. Sure, I tend to drive five miles per hour or so over the speed limit and I’ll sometimes go through a light that might be more orange than yellow but, overall, I like to think of myself as one who is in good standing with the law. Apparently, I have a lot to learn if this good relationship is going to be kept up in London. Well, my relationship with the police force here is still as strong as ever but the same cannot be said for the mall security personnel here. At the Notting Hill Carnival this weekend, Constable Bird and I chatted for a good amount of time in a very pleasant manner while waiting for the parade to start. Today at a busy Forever 21-like store, I was unable to have a similar pleasant exchange with a grumpy security man who was an active participant in the elbow throwing that was required to get through the hustle and bustle there rather than a guide in helping calm said hustle and bustle. Again, I am a law-abiding citizen. My familiarity with authority figures is pretty low. These radically different run-ins with such figures in the middle of our stay in London coincides beautifully with our reading of Caldwell’s “After Londonistan”. Well-planned, Professor Qualls. But truly, these situations and the reading together make me wonder about the law-enforcement in London. Constable Bird said something that keeps ringing in my ears: “Do people hate the police in America as much as they do here? Everyone likes to jump to conclusions about us without hearing the whole story or understanding the situation.” Well, I still might not know exactly why the security man was so angered by my misplacing a sweater on the wrong rack, but allow me to try to reason through how that situation might tie in to the relationship between civilian and authority figure that is present in London.

Just a part of the swarm of police coming down the hill

Just a part of the swarm of police coming down the hill

Notting Hill Carnival was packed. There were truly hundreds of people swarming in every direction around the community. A parade full of loud and vibrantly dressed people didn’t help in bringing any sense of order to the streets. I’ve never before witnessed such life and excitement in one area. I loved it. That vibrancy would have been tainted immensely if any unruliness (at a level above shrieking whistles being blown repeatedly for hours) broke out. To ensure this didn’t happen, the London police made sure to come down in full uniform, some on horseback. My first impression of them was one of intimidation. A mass of black and white, the police came down to the parade from on top of a hill, spread out in a way that made sure they took up the entire width of the street. Impressive and something that sent the message: don’t mess with us. After taking a few pictures, I mentally noted the message and continued to anxiously wait for the parade to begin. The police took their places as the barrier between the crowd and the parade; yes, the police were the barrier rather than a fence-like object. It was in this moment that Constable Bird and I met. We chatted about his rather snazzy uniform (the hats are particularly wonderful) and then settled on a more important matter. He complained that the police in London have a reputation of being the hot-headed, rash, and sometimes cruel enforcer figure that the press just loves to slam for any seeming mishap. This was not my experience with London’s finest at all. An officer on horseback allowed a curious and hopeful young boy to pet his horse while Constable Bird chatted about his hat, retirement preferences, and favorite spots in Notting Hill with a curious tourist. He even took a picture with us. A cruel or ticket-hungry description could not be further from the one I would give to Constable Bird and the police force that day. Intimidating, yes; unjust, no.


The store I visited today was packed as well. With sweaters for two pounds, it’s not a mystery why. Again, I was a bit intimidated by the security personnel there. They wore all black and were positioned at almost every clothing rack. Searching for your size while someone is scrutinizing your every move is less than calming (and size is also a very personal matter so not only are you not calm, you’re also a bit embarrassed and/or annoyed. Unfortunately, I was all three- not calm, annoyed, and trying to avoid embarrassment). I put down one of the sweaters on top of a clothing rack when I found a rain jacket I wanted to try on. I had literally just sat the sweater down when this man very harshly demanded to know if that was my item. When he found out that it was, he informed me that I was not allowed to place my item up there. Let’s set up the mental image here. I have a huge purse in between my legs, I’m wobbling as to not run into people, and I’m trying to figure out the size conversion in my head. I’m a bit of a mess. In one of my not-so-bright moments, I look around the store and ask the man where he suggests I put the item in question. He didn’t appreciate that question. Rather than answer me and try to make the situation better, he proceeded to stare me down. He just stared at me. Taking the hint, I hung the jacket back in its proper place, gathered my things, and went on my way (only after running into a person in my efforts). Yes, the situation was a tense one and I was less than polite but I don’t think my reaction deserved such a harsh reaction. While the police at the carnival actually did what they were meant to do (keep the carnival calm and running smoothly), the security man did just the opposite in scrutinizing something incredibly trivial and then refusing to offer any solution to the problem he created in the first place. What is interesting to me is the fact that of these two men, if they walked into a pub in their work attire, Londoners would probably prefer the security man’s presence over the officer’s (at least based on my understanding of the police/citizen relationship here).

Caldwell seems to make the point that London’s law-enforcement is often times rash, not well-thought out, and sometimes quite unjust. Now, Caldwell isn’t focusing on how the law treats college-aged tourists, I understand. Still, my limited exposure to the police in the area makes me believe that the law here strives towards not only fairness and equality but also ensuring the safety of the community. Balancing these is an incredibly difficult task especially in more intense situations than a street fair. But does the security man’s attitude not tell us something of the everyday person’s dealings with authority? In my totally biased opinion, it seems that those who are trying to keep the peace in London are truly trying to do just that. Still, clearly there are those who nitpick at things for reasons of lesser credibility than the greater good (I’m sorry but my sweater was truly not in anyone’s way!). I’m interested which authority figure type is more prevalent in the city: Constable Bird or angry security man. Is London a city under the protection of those who are hoping to keep the peace or under the rule enforcement of those who follow the letter of the law rather than its spirit? I’m not sure but I’m interested in figuring it out…

Tags: Audrey